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Open Ocean Aquaculture

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Publication Date: March 2007

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL32694

Topic: Agriculture, forestry and fishing (Fish industry)


Open ocean aquaculture is broadly defined as the rearing of marine organisms in exposed areas beyond significant coastal influence. Open ocean aquaculture employs less control over organisms and the surrounding environment than do inshore and land-based aquaculture, which are often undertaken in enclosures, such as ponds. When aquaculture operations are located beyond coastal state jurisdiction, within the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ; generally 3 to 200 miles from shore), they are regulated primarily by federal agencies. Thus far, only a few aquaculture research facilities have operated in the U.S. EEZ; to date, all commercial aquaculture facilities have been sited in nearshore waters under state or territorial jurisdiction.

Development of commercial aquaculture facilities in federal waters is hampered by an unclear regulatory process for the EEZ, and technical uncertainties related to working in offshore areas. Regulatory uncertainty has been identified by the Administration as the major barrier to developing open ocean aquaculture. Uncertainties often translate into barriers to commercial investment. Potential environmental and economic impacts and associated controversy have also likely contributed to slowing potential expansion.

Proponents of open ocean aquaculture believe it is the beginning of the "blue revolution" -- a period of broad advances in culture methods and subsequent increases in production. Critics point to concerns related to environmental protection and potential impacts on existing commercial fisheries. Potential outcomes are difficult to characterize because of the diverse nature of potential operations and the lack of aquaculture experience in open ocean areas.

The National Offshore Aquaculture Act was introduced as S. 1195 in the 109th Congress at the Administration's request, but was not enacted. The legislation focused on the need to develop a framework for issuing permits to operate in the EEZ. The bill has been re-drafted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and may be introduced in the 110th Congress. Issues raised in connection with the previous bill included potential environmental impacts, the role of states, and permit security and duration.

This report discusses four general areas: (1) operational and business-related challenges; (2) potential environmental impacts; (3) potential economic impacts; and (4) the legal and regulatory environment. It then summarizes recent executive and legislative actions. Significant questions remain about whether an appropriate mechanism exists for any federal agency to provide an open ocean aquaculture lease with the necessary property rights to begin construction and operation. Policy makers and regulators will be challenged to weigh the needs of a developing industry against potential environmental and social impacts.